When can the government ban a product?

Constitutionally, I mean. Obviously in practice the answer is whenever the manufacturers of rival products can bribe enough politicians.

The EU has banned incandescent light bulbs, and the US is heading in the same direction. In the EU it worse because the alternative technology of compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL) is subsidized which prevents the superior (to CFL, because of a more natural spectrum of emitted light) technology of LED bulbs from getting a proper market share. But the rationale for banning incandescent bulbs is idiotic. If you try to reduce it to syllogisms you run into several logical gaps.

You also have trouble purchasing a shower head or a toilet with as much of a flow of water as you used to be able to. And there are lots of other examples where the government bans products because busybodies want to exercise petty power by restricting people (that’s not the stated reason of course but the stated reasons can never stand up to scrutiny).

I am asking a legal question here. Due to the externalities associated with pollution, it is economically justifiable to ban, tax, or restrict the use of products which pollute the environment. But this is not that. These product bans are not to prevent pollution.

There is no legal restriction on my flushing my low-flow toilet 2 or 3 times in order to get it sufficiently clean, and no restriction on how many watts worth of CFL bulbs I am allowed to purchase for my house. There is no environmental pollution or impact associated with me turning on a 30-watt CFC bulb in place of a 75-watt incandescent bulb, except in the context of a reduction of OVERALL energy consumption. This is rationing.

Now the government is allowed to ration certain things under certain circumstances, but it is normally going to require an extreme situation like a war or a natural disaster. Americans would not stand for rationing on the basis of crackpot greenie theories about the evils of energy usage or water usage per se, independent of how the electricity or water was obtained (we are not talking about carbon emissions here, even if the insane theory that carbon dioxide is a pollutant were accepted).  But we accept the stealth rationing because we are told it is “green”.

Can anyone enlighten me of the legal basis for the Federal Government to ban particular technologies, not because they pollute the environment, but because of a policy decision that overall consumption of something should be lower?

Here is a good response from Germany:

Skirting EU law: The rebranding of incandescent bulbs as “Heat Balls”

Original version

We could definitely get away with this kind of trick in the USA too, if necessary. I don’t mind leaving incandescent bulbs on in the winter because the supposedly “wasted” energy gets transformed into heat which reduces the amount of work my furnace has to do, so I am not losing anything (well, I have a gas furnace so it is more expensive per kilowatt but if I had an electric heating system it would be equivalent). People who get CFCs wil have larger heating bills and will feel colder too (a nice thing about heat from incandescent bulbs is it is localized initially, so if I am reading late at night I don’t mind that the house thermostat is down at 62 degrees F. because the lit room I’m reading in is warmer).

There is a general problem with democracies that no one is sufficiently in charge to put a stop to obvious stupidity like this. I just came back from a few days in California, which has been ruined by exactly this kind of political busybodying, see my comment here. My parents told me that their city now requires recycling of food waste, which means people keep it around in garbage cans for days instead of flushing it, and they started to see roaches in their apartment building within 3 months of the requirement taking effect, after 16 years never seeing one.

I’m not even going to get into, in this post, the economic consequences to the country of banning incandescent bulbs. I just want to know where the legal authority comes from, and what kind of a finding of environmental impact is technically necessary to justify such interventions.


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9 Responses to When can the government ban a product?

  1. Anonymous Crab says:

    I’m unhappy about this, too; hate hate hate CFL’s anywhere other than in places we rarely go but always leave lights on in, like the basement we walk through to get to the garage and the laundry room. Really unclear to me how this got passed and signed.

    That being said, about this line:

    There is no environmental pollution or impact associated with me turning on a 30-watt CFC bulb in place of a 75-watt incandescent bulb, except in the context of a reduction of OVERALL energy consumption. This is rationing.

    Isn’t the point of all this that the reduction in energy consumption leads to reduced power demand which in turn leads to less pollution generated by power plants?

  2. Polymath says:

    Well, yes, that’s the point, but the appropriate way to handle that would be to tax power based on how polluting the method of producing it was, rather than to tax overall consumption. Taxing energy consumption is economically stupid because it will not create any incentives to produce power in non-polluting ways; rather it will increase incentives to produce power in the cheapest ways which are also the most polluting. If this kind of penalty were applied widely (and not just to light bulbs) it could even lead to an absolute increase in pollution from energy production despite an overall reduction in energy, because of a “wealth effect” — “green power” gets priced out of existence when everyone is poorer.

    “Energy” and “Water” are never bad per se, it depends on how the resources are generated. Even in areas with abundant water we still have to use low-flow toilets and shower heads; and even if I am covering my roof with solar cells to make my electricity I still wouldn’t be allowed to light an incandescent bulb with it.

    Anyway, most power plants in the USA are so clean now that they are only significant polluters if you count carbon dioxide as a pollutant, which I don’t.

  3. Anonymous Crab says:

    This disagrees that there’s not significant pollution. I really don’t know much about this myself. It’s also unclear to me if the main pollutant coming from these plants is carbon dioxide (the greenhouse gas) or carbon (as in soot).

    In any case, it seems to me the government gets to do what it wants (well, it’s the government, so that generally is the case, for better or for worse) from either of two completely different perspectives: if power plants are producing pollution, and if using less electricity to light our homes and (surely more importantly) businesses would reduce the amount of electricity that needs to be produced, and therefore cause less pollution, it seems pretty clear to me that this can be regulated, I guess via EPA.

    If you want to reject the pollution aspect and ask, as you have, how the government can ban something because of a simple policy decision that we should be consuming less of something, I’d ask what legal basis Nixon had to set a national 55 mph speed limit? (I realize they got there via the threat of cutting off highway funds, as they got to a national drinking age of 21, but it all seems to be built on shaky ground to me.)

  4. Polymath says:

    If you read that article carefully, it admits that the only airborne “pollutant” that is significant from coal plants these days is carbon dioxide. It is true that coal plants still generate a lot of dirty SOLID waste, but that is much much less of an environmental issue because it can be sequestered or disposed of with care, just like nuclear waste (and in fact the problem with nuclear waste is worse, for some kinds of nuclear power plants, but they do a good job with the nuclear waste while the article is correct that they need to do a better job with the coal solid waste).

    I’ll still admit that coal is dirtier than other forms of energy and that taxing it is justified as a result, that doesn’t affect my point that an overall tax on energy consumption does nothing to shift us to a cleaner type of power. Your point in your second paragraph is invalid because it assumes there is no way to impose costs on some forms of production but not on others.

    The 55 mph speed limit is a great example, and it is critically important that the Feds could not impose a speed limit directly, they could only bribe states to do it by taxing everyone’s incomes and redistributing it based on state laws. For CFL bulbs that trick is less effective because as long as incandescent bulbs are legal in one state the Feds can’t prevent people from other states buying them from there. (I can get my light bulbs from Idaho if I need to but I can’t outsource my highway driving there.)

  5. The only reason why US power plants are dirty is because they’re not nuclear power plants due to irrational morons being against it.

    And the light bulbs thing is stupid – I had the green ones and I used a lot more of them. I usually turn only one bright one on, but if the bulb is crappier, I turn all 3 or 5 on, depending on the room. Which is funny, since my energy consumption goes up with eco friendly bulbs. Ironic, isn’t it?

  6. Polymath says:

    I completely agree, and what’s funny is the cognitive dissonance of the greenies when you offer them nuclear power as a solution to the “greenhouse gas problem”. There a few honest ones who say maybe nuclear power should be reconsidered and the pros and cons should be compared, but whenever they write an article saying this they get attacked by the others.

    What other consumer products have been banned or denigrated like this on environmentalist grounds (besides light bulbs, shower heads, toilets)? And what products have been banned on nanny statist you-might-hurt-yourself grounds? I’m trying to compile a list, in order to organize a protest.

  7. Anonymous Crab says:

    What other consumer products have been banned or denigrated like this on environmentalist grounds (besides light bulbs, shower heads, toilets)?

    DDT? Lead paint and leaded gasoline? Dioxin? Aerosol spray cans?

    But you know what I can’t figure out? Where the drive to ban incandescent lights, or to restrict shower or toilet water use COMES FROM. The things I just listed, sure, there obvious calls to ban those things. Nuclear power, sure, you’ve got people who protest the hell out of any plans to build a new nuclear plant. Animal testing, wearing fur, there’s protesters for that. Who the hell wanted to ban decent lightbulbs and toilets that work? Those seem like me to be the sort of inexplicable crap that NO ONE wants, and yet government just orders on its own.

  8. Polymath says:


    Good examples. Here’s how I analyze them:

    DDT : banning it may have been the worst environmental mistake ever. Millions of deaths from malaria resulted. The bad effect it had on some birds’ eggs could have been minimized without an outright ban on the substance.

    Lead paint: the most reasonable example of protect-idiots-from-themselves I have seen.

    Leaded gasoline: not sure what the rationale for this was since it is not consumed like paint sometimes is, maybe enough lead got into the air to hurt people but I haven’t seen the evidence.

    Dioxin — not a consumer product, banning toxic industrial chemicals is a different issue which doesn’t restrict people so much, and in this case it was clearly justified by the toxicology.

    Aerosol spray cans — the link to depleting the ozone layer is quite tenuous, but the ban makes sense if the science is solid (which it may not be, maybe someone can provide a link to a good study).

    To answer your question about where the drive to ban comes from: 1) Green Religion dogma that wealth and consumption are bad in and of themselves 2) Desire to boss people around and more long-term to get the population used to acting like the slaves of the government instead of their masters 3) Lobbying and bribing of politicians by those who benefit from the regulations (carbon indulgence-sellers, manufacturers of CFL bulbs and low-flow toilets, etc.).

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